When Time Is Broke

… how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
William Shakespeare.
     History of Richard II (c. 1595)

 

The phrase “paradox of proportionality” was, says Tom Doak—author of Streamsong Red and the Sheep Ranch and Cape Kidnappers and Stone Eagle and perhaps a dozen other highly entertaining golf courses—“was just something I said off the top of my head a few years ago in a discussion.” He invented the phrase in response to the common complaint of golfers that some architectural feature is “unfair” for one reason or another. What if, Doak asked in turn, a perfectly “fair” golf course could be invented? “What you would get,” he surmised,  “is a course on the straight and narrow … for every yard offline you hit a particular shot, you’d get a proportionately harder next shot.” That is, a shot that is twenty yards offline, say, would be punished twice as much as one that is ten yards offline. Yet, while the phrase may have been invented at the spur-of-the-moment, it also reflects a conversation about golf architecture that goes back at least to the 1920s. As Doak’s phrase and my emphasis makes clear, it is the word proportionately that’s of crucial significance: around this word, as I’ll show, universes spin.

What Doak means by “proportionate” is that if courses were designed in this way, it “would make the game easiest for the good player, and hardest for the bad player.” Which, on the surface, might sound just, or fair: shouldn’t things be easiest for the good player? What’s the point of being good, if not? But that’s what makes for the paradox, Doak says: in reality, “good players need to be challenged”—that is, they need an arena to demonstrate their skill—and “bad players need a way around that doesn’t cost them too much.” If the game is hardest for the very worst players, in other words, there isn’t going to be a game much longer.

That then is what Doak means by what he calls the “paradox”: “if you design a course strictly to punish bad shots proportionately, you get just the opposite” of a course that would allow bad players to survive while delighting the better player. To allow golf to survive as a sport, Doak says that it’s necessary to design golf courses that are—“paradoxically” you might say—unfair. But while to put things this way makes Doak sound like a kind of socialist—it’s difficult not to hear an echo of “from each according to his abilities, and to each according to his needs” in what Doak writes— it’s also possible to describe his position in terms that have directly the opposite political valence.

That’s how the debate that Doak here enters turned nearly at the very beginnings of the modern age of the sport itself: as one Bob Crosby has noted on the website, Golf Club Atlas, at the zenith of the Jazz Age, one Joshua Crane—an excellent player in his own right, and critic of golf architecture—insisted that golf “is improving because the punishment for poor play is becoming universally fairer.” Golf became better, Crane argued, the more it acceded to “the demands of human nature for fair play”—the “real pleasure” of the game, Crane argued, was in the “manipulation” of all the elements of the game (shotmaking, first of all) “in a skillful and thoughtful way, and under conditions where victory or defeat is due to superior or inferior handling, not to good or bad luck beyond either player’s control.” In Doak’s terms, Crane was in effect arguing that golf architecture ought to be “proportionate”: Crane was essentially claiming that golf ought to be easiest for the good player, and hardest for the bad player.

Opposing Crane, and thus championing the position eventually occupied by Doak, was the golf architect, Max Behr—“Yale’s first graduate to design golf courses,” according to a website maintained by the university. (I once saw Robert Duvall in the parking lot at Lakeside Golf Club in Burbank, California—one of Behr’s best known designs.) Contrary to Crane, Behr believed that what he called “the moral dimension”—i.e., what Crane thought of as “fair play”—had no place in golf architecture. To the contrary in fact, according to one of his foremost interpreters: Bob Crosby of Golf Club Atlas writes that Behr thought that it is “the threat of inequitable, devastating hazards that accounts for the highest drama in the game,” which for Behr was “the whole point of good golf architecture.” Indeed, so long as “the player is given the option to play away from hazards,” Behr thought that the “architect owes the player nothing in terms of equity.” Hole-wrecking, even round-wrecking, hazards were entirely part of the game—even perhaps the point of the game—to Behr, while Crane thought they were anathema.

All through the late summer and autumn of 1926, and into 1927, the combat between the two men raged in the pages of the arrestingly-named Country Club & Pacific Golf and Motor Magazine—an apparently fine publication that would, like so many other literary efforts, not survive the crash of Wall Street less than three years in the future. They argued the point in several fashions; one way to describe the difference between the two men is to put it in terms of ideal scores. As Crane saw golf, an ideal scorecard would be a series of fives say, or—for the better player—a series of fours. Crane’s notion of a “good score” would be, in other words, something like “5-5-5-4-5-4-5-5-5” for nine holes. But Behr’s “ideal” scorecard (and, I suspect, Doak’s) would look quite different: that scorecard might read “4-6-2-5-9-2-4-5-6.” If I’ve done the math right, both cards come in at 43—but one suspects that the Behr scorecard contains, as Behr wished, a great deal more drama. To Behr, that was the whole point. To Behr, it wasn’t what you shot, but how you shot it that mattered; to Crane, the reverse.

Put in this way, it is Behr who might sound something like those conservative voices who, for example, argued against the federal bailouts of the large banks on the grounds that such bailouts encourage “moral hazard”—the notion that, as Andrew Beattie at Investopedia has put it, “a party that is protected in some way from risk will act differently than if they didn’t have that protection.” By protecting banks against the risk of catastrophic losses, you have encouraged them to behave in ways that risk catastrophic losses.

Just so, Behr could be imagined as saying, by in effect protecting golfers from the risk of huge scores, you are encouraging them to play lackadaisically; that is, without the sort of strategic planning Behr thought was essential to playing golf well. Behr thought of this, according to Bob Crosby, as “strategic freedom”; the “primary pay-off” of which, Crosby says, “is the drama created by a player’s fore-knowledge that his failure to pull off an aggressive … strategy might indeed have consequences that are devastating, disproportionate and ‘unfair.’” Behr in short thought that golfers ought to have a choice about which path to take to the hole: a risky choice and a less-risky one. But that freedom, he argued, ought to be backed by some pretty severe consequences of failure.

In that sense then, it’s possible to read Behr’s idea as being archly-capitalist, rather than, as I said earlier about Doak, socialistic. (For the record, both Behr and Crane were strongly conservative, while Doak’s politics are entirely unknown to me.) For example, it’s possible to hear an echo of Behr’s philosophy of golf courses in the recent debate over health care—particularly, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in the New Yorker some years ago, over the question of “moral hazard.” Apparently, in 1968 “the economist Mark Pauly,” Gladwell tells us, “argued that moral hazard played an enormous role in medicine”—the idea being that making “you responsible for a share of the costs” of your medical bills “will reduce moral hazard.” That is, you will be—as Behr argued about golfers—a more careful person, and more diligent about your health needs.

Yet, whereas that may be true in a game like golf, Gladwell’s informants argue that such is an absurd line of thinking when applied to medical care. One of them, the economist Uwe Reinhardt of Princeton University, says flatly that “[m]oral hazard is overblown” when it comes to medicine because nobody goes to the doctor blithely. “We go to the doctor,” as Gladwell remarks, “grudgingly, only because we’re sick.” Whereas, in the notional, Behr-like, world suggested by the then-current system before Obamacare, people would supposedly spend their off hours trekking to the doctor’s office were they not impeded by the costs, people like Reinhardt just observed that in reality nobody goes to the doctor cheerfully. Or as Reinhardt put it, do people “check into the hospital instead of playing golf?”

The answer, of course, is “no”—an answer that also suggests just why it is so dangerous to mix arguments over games with arguments over politics. I would, for example, much rather play a golf course designed by Doak or Behr than one designed by Crane. Conversely, however, I would much rather get my medical care from a system designed by Crane than I would one designed by Behr. Does this mean that one philosophy is better than the other in all situations? No; it just means that what we want from our entertainment is different than what we want—or should want—from the systems that support our lives.

Once—or so I understand—this was known as “having a sense of proportion.”

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Arbitrating Arbitrariness

MACBETH: If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.
The Tragedy of Macbeth.

 

 

Justice Antonin Scalia died this past week, and while his judicial opinions will be alternately celebrated and denounced according to political sensibilities, Scalia is perhaps known to golfers best for his dissent in the case of PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, the case that pitted Casey Martin, Stanford teammate of Tiger Woods and victim of a birth defect in his right leg, against the Tour over whether Martin could use a golf cart while playing tournaments. Excepting the fact that Casey Martin is and always has been an extremely polite individual, the case embodied the “snobs vs. slobs” trope that has motivated nearly every golf story for the mass market at least since the premiere of Caddyshack, and Justice Scalia did not disappoint from that angle; in a performance reminiscent of Judge Smails recollecting to the Danny character how, while he had not wished to sentence “boys younger than you to the gas chamber,” he felt he “owed it to them,” Scalia pours a rain of sarcasm on the majority of the court (who sided with Martin). Yet, while Scalia’s opinion is entertaining, what is perhaps most interesting about it from an intellectual perspective is that in his dissent Scalia lays out a theory of games that’s about as “postmodern” as that from any Continental philosopher or theory-addled Brown semiotician: “in all games,” Scalia wrote, the rules are “entirely arbitrary”—an assertion hardly distinguishable from hero-of-the-poststructuralist left Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim, about language itself, that “the link between signal and signification is arbitrary.” But are these claims about arbitrariness true? And what does it mean that in this connection Scalia appears hardly discernable from some of the more outré claims of the contemporary humanistic academy? I’d suggest that there is indeed a subterranean connection between the two—a connection that may in turn explain just how it is that Bill James, the scholar of baseball, is working for the Boston Red Sox and not, say, the University of Missouri.

James, after all, is perhaps best-known in baseball circles—aside from being the man who nearly singlehandedly brought Enlightenment principles to sport—for inventing what’s become known as “Pythagorean expectation”: it’s a formula by which a given team’s win and loss record can be accurately forecasted by examining the runs the team scores versus the runs the team allows. (It’s called “Pythagorean” because of the formula’s superficial similarity to Pythagora’s famous theorem.) By combing through the records, baseball scholars have found that win-loss records generally do mirror the difference between the runs they score and the runs they allow, and also that teams that differ greatly in terms of their expectation can be shown to have benefitted (or been harmed) by some sort of chanciness: like, for instance, the 1974 San Diego Padres, who had a phenomenal record of 31-16 in one-run games while going 29-86 in all the other games.

Hence, as Baseball Reference points out, “while winning as many games as possible is still the ultimate goal of a baseball team, a team’s run differential … provides a better idea of how well a team is actually playing.” Pythagorean Expectation, in short, is a way of eliminating arbitrariness from a team’s record by taking what could be called a more-granular view: rather than viewing a team from the skybox level of a team’s record, it’s better to look at the record from the basepath-level—how well or poorly a team does at the game’s essential act of scoring or preventing runs.

To Scalia, however, it seems that there is no such thing as an act “essential” to a given game: “since it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement,” the justice wrote in Martin, “it is quite impossible to say that any of a game’s arbitrary rules is ‘essential.’” Similarly, postmodern intellectuals like to claim, as literary critic Jonathan Culler has, that “there is no natural or inevitable link between the signifier and the signified.” Such arguments take off from de Saussure’s work on language a century ago, by which the Swiss linguist was led to argue that, for instance, “There is no internal connection, for example, between the idea ‘sister’ and the French sequence of sounds s—ö—r which acts as its signal.” In that sense, literary intellectuals often like to speak, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein did, of “language games”: in this way, as has been said, the “rules of language are analogous to the rules of games; thus saying something in a language is analogous to making a move in a game.” Conversely then, no one “sign” can be considered to be “essential” to a language, just as no one act can be considered to be essential to a game. In that sense, it seems that while Scalia and hyper-left-wing scholars of the humanities were political opponents in many different arenas, they can usefully be said to oppose James’ notion that, in fact, there are essential acts that are definitional to a game—and that those acts can be used to determine value.

In that way, then, contemporary literary intellectuals and Scalia can be said to be united in their opposition to a position first enunciated a long time before Bill James ever walked the earth—a position with far more political import than the game of golf. So far as I know, that principle was first announced by the German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer, Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century in his work, De concordatia catholica (or, The Catholic Concordance). “It is, Nicholas wrote there, “a general principle that the greater the agreement to a proposal, the more reason there is to think it correct and divinely inspired.” Or, as the Marquis de Condorcet would put it similarly some centuries later in his Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions: “If … each voter is more likely to vote correctly … then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct.” In other words, what these learned Europeans were arguing centuries before Bill James is that by looking at the acts of scoring—in this case, voting—that are essential to the game of elections, it is possible to find real value, and not simply mirages.

Today, arguments like Scalia’s in the Martin case or the arguments of postmodern literary intellectuals can be found advanced by, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s campaign when her supporters sometimes say—as they do—that the supporters of her opponent Bernie Sanders should know that, while Sanders nearly tied Clinton in Iowa (and just how nearly is under dispute, because the Iowa Democratic Party refuses to release the actual vote totals) and outright won New Hampshire, still those figures should be overlooked because Clinton has an overwhelming lead in what are known as “superdelegates”: delegates of the party who will attend this summer’s national convention and vote on a nominee, but were unelected within their state’s primary process. Such arguments like to point out that, while Sanders possesses a 36-32 lead among elected delegates thus far, Clinton is crushing Sanders by 362-8 among party insiders. The link between the party’s nominee and the primary process, these Clinton arguments suggest, is arbitrary—thusly, that Sanders’ supporters should give up their insurgency and, so to speak, return to the Clinton fold.

As can be seen, then, the arguments of “arbitrariness” are not particular to a certain political bent, but are instead markers of a certain kind of social position: fans of Hillary Clinton are in sum  likely to share these assumptions with fans of Antonin Scalia. It’s not arbitrary, in other words, that the only demographic group Clinton won in New Hampshire were those making over $200,000 per year. Both fans of Scalia and fans of Clinton are likely to reject Nicholas of Cusa’s and the Marquis de Condorcet’s assertion that value can be found in the opinion of the majority. Which, one supposes, is an opinion they are entitled to have. What’s perhaps surprising, however, is to suppose that the majority of Americans—golf fans or not—should ever agree to it.

She Won’t Survive

I will survive.
—Gloria Gaynor.

I had no idea that it was that easy to get the attention of, much less—apparently—annoy the hell out of a national talking head for a semi-big-time news network like MSNBC, but apparently in the brand-new world of social media such things are easily possible. Such, at least, is what I learned when I happened to object to that network’s Joan Walsh’s cheerleading for Hillary Clinton on Twitter the weekend before the New Hampshire primary. I won’t get into the particulars—the lowlight was probably when she got taken to task by a city councilman from New Rochelle, New York for attempting to use race as a bludgeon (the councilman is black, seems like a decent guy)—but suffice it to say that many supporters of Hillary Clinton seem to think that she deserves the Democratic nomination on the basis that she has climbed through all sorts of slime to get to the position she is in now. From one perspective, of course, that might be a good reason to think she should not be elected—crawling through slime tends to get dirty—but as Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story, pointed out the other day, logic does not appear to be a strong suit in Hillaryland. What Greenwald’s story suggests is that the difference between Clinton supporters and Sanders’ supporters is that the latter understand the logical error known as “survivorship bias,” and the former don’t. The trouble for Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that without such an understanding, there seems little reason to vote Democratic at all.

That then would seem to make “survivorship bias” a significant concept—but what it is it? Essentially, survivorship bias is the magical belief that something successful possesses a special quality that caused that success, instead of considering that it may simply be the result of coincidence. Nicolas Taleb advances an example of how survivorship bias can skew our assessments of the world in his book, Fooled By Randomness: imagine, he writes there, 10,000 money managers whose annual results are decided by a coin flip. If the flips are conducted for five years it could be expected, simply out “of pure luck,” that 313 of those managers would have “winning” records—that is, for every year for five years running, those 300-odd managers would have won their coin flip. One can only imagine how they might feel about themselves; one suspects that at least a few of them would write books describing their “successful methods” for “beating Wall Street.” (And perhaps one or two of those books would themselves be successful, increasing the self-esteem of those people even more.) In other words, imagine Donald Trump.

It’s the notion of survivorship bias that is the very basis for science—the thought that maybe the eye of newt wasn’t what made little Timmy well, but instead that he happened to get well on his own. And it’s also something that, according to Glenn Greenwald, Hillary Clinton’s supporters in the U.S. media simply don’t understand—which is how we have gotten the narrative known by the name “Bernie Bros.” Greenwald explained the point recently in a piece for The Intercept, the magazine he started after being one of the first journalists to meet Edward Snowden, the former federal employee who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans.

What Greenwald calls the “‘Bernie Bros’ narrative” has, he says, two components: the first the conviction that Hillary Clinton has not received universal acclaim because of sexism, and the second that “Sanders supporters are uniquely abusive and misogynistic in their online behavior.” The goal of this game, Greenwald goes on to say, is to “delegitimize all critics of Hillary Clinton by accusing them of … sexism, thus distracting attention away from Clinton’s policy views, funding, and political history.” Greenwald’s insight is that, while many in the mainstream media have taken the idea seriously (or at least claimed to), in fact being subjected to “a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse” is simply a function of being on the Internet. “There are,” as Greenwald points out, “literally no polarizing views one can advocate online … that will not subject” a person to such screeds. In other words, pro-Clinton journalists are attracting hateful messages from supposed Sanders supporters because they are on the Internet, not because Sanders’ supporters are somehow less polite than partisans of other candidates: “If you spend your time praising Clinton and/or criticizing Sanders,” Greenwald observes, “of course you personally will experience more anger and vitriol from Sanders supporters than Clinton supporters.” As Greenwald points out, Sanders’ women supporters—and boy, there seem to be a lot of them—also have unpleasant experiences online. But because—surprise surprise—Hillary is the “establishment” candidate, very few of them have the pulpit of the national media from which to parade their hurt feelings.

What the whole episode I think demonstrates—though Greenwald does not draw this out—is precisely what this primary season is about: it conclusively demonstrates that Clinton’s version of the Democratic Party has very little interest in considering the role of chance in how our lives turn out. That’s a pretty stunning renunciation for a party that once denounced a Republican candidate (as Jim Hightower said about George H. W. Bush during the 1988 Democratic Convention) for being “born on third base and think[ing] he hit a triple.” Survivorship bias, in other words, has been the intellectual link between the Democratic Party’s reliance on science and its interest in society’s less fortunates: it’s not only what makes the Democratic Party the party whose members are far more concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens, but also far more likely to believe the word of climate change scientists. To either misunderstand—or worse, deliberately misunderstand—the concept of survivorship bias is a far stronger argument against a Clinton presidency than virtually any listing of the campaign contributions she has accepted from various dubious sources. Which is something, because Clinton’s financial dealings with such charming fellows as the gentlemen at Goldman Sachs and the sheiks of Saudi Arabia are pretty alarming—and alarmingly plentiful.

Yet, maybe it’s a sign of hope that the American electorate is rejecting Hillary Clinton because for all Hillary Clinton claims to be a “survivor,” she doesn’t really understand what it means.

Eyeless In Medinah

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.
Obi-Wan Kenobi. Star Wars

 

Pete, the legendary caddiemaster at Medinah, wanted me to see the new Course One before the major tournament of the year, the Medinah Classic. So naturally he sent me out with perhaps the best player at the club, a man I’d worked for before—and a guy who might not be all that happy I hadn’t seen the course in action yet. Luckily, he wasn’t playing in the tournament, and hadn’t played the course himself either, so we saw it out together without much thought about total score or whether he was winning any bets. (Sure there were some; the others in the foursome however, being double digit handicappers at best, cooperated splendidly by remaining afterthoughts the whole way.) I didn’t have a yardage book nor a laser rangefinder, so the whole experience was, if you care for that sort of thing, enormously fun; the course is well-marked on the sprinkler heads and I know how to get a yardage, so we weren’t entirely eyeless. And Course One was first built in 1926; there seemed something right about “flying blind”—I wouldn’t say it was exactly like the moment in Star Wars where Obi-Wan tells Luke to turn off his targeting computer, but as we would discover through the round, the new Course One is a bit like the Star Wars movies anyway: as many people have said, Star Wars was a mash-up of spaghetti Westerns, Casablanca, Japanese samurai films, and Flash Gordon; similarly, the new Course One is a revisit to the Golden Age.

As (nearly all) rounds must, we began on the first tee, which is more or less the same as the old Course One: the same elevated tee box over a creek, looking at the camel bunker—perhaps the source for the famous “Dick Tracy” bunker at Cantigny down the road. The same old trees overhang the fairway on either side—though as we would discover, many of the trees that had once crowded the fairways have been removed—and a badly hooked opener risks putting the seventeenth green in play on the left, while a terrible slice will still find the ninth fairway to the right. But there are certain differences: the fairway bunkers, for instance, are far tighter and more shipshape than on the old course. What I mean by that is that they are more cunningly placed; whereas on the old layout they seemed to be somewhat random, now they each seem to have a purpose.

The first set of bunkers in fact intrude upon the fairway just enough to be worrying for a careless shot for a big hitter, while for the short hitter they are hardly a factor. This is also true of the second set of bunkers: for the short hitter, who will be laying up in front of them, they will likely not matter, but for the long ball they become controlling. It’s conceivable, in fact, that they might even dictate hitting less than a driver off the tee for somebody who was a strong player but not terribly terribly long: a certain sort might just choose to hit a close third shot rather than deal with calculating the risk of trying for two, no matter how tempting an opening eagle might be. And then there’s the green: large, with several possible plateaus, a severe false front, and a pronounced front to back rake. Overall, the first hole tells an excellent tale of what’s to come: not so much a complete makeover as an excellent tailoring—what was loose has been made tight, what was vague has been defined. The sense is that order has come from chaos: an undisciplined band has been drilled into an army.

Still, while the first hole is like the old hole, only with a spitshine and a piercing eye, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Tom Doak’s work on the course was more like an editor’s than a real writer’s. That impression changes after the first green, on the short walk—like all the great courses, Course One’s tee boxes are mostly only fifty yards or less from the previous green—to the next tee: while that walk is more or less the same as on the old course, and the tee is essentially in the same place, the fairway that rises from that tee is far from the old one. Freud somewhere compares the unconscious to Rome, that layered city: the classical scholar can picture in her mind’s eye the Forum of Trajan overlaying the Forum of Julius Caesar, itself atop the Forum as it existed when the fabulous Romulus allied himself with the tribe on the opposite hill—ab urbe condita, “from the founding of the City.” For somebody who has spent a lot of time at Medinah, the effect is (distantly) similar: the landform of the old hole is still there—the beginnings of the fairway where, long ago, poor Johnny Whathisname got pegged in the back of the head fifty yards off the tee by a tourist who didn’t get what a forecaddie was. And yet, now it’s all different.

That second hole is itself a great promise of things to come: it’s a really great hole, and in a way too bad that it comes so early in the round, though in another that’s not all bad. Like Rob says in High Fidelity: “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch …” The second hole does that: a lovely short par four that heads straightaway up a modest rise—then drops sharply downhill to a Redan green with a nasty further little drop behind it. The trick is to stay up the right side, though that’s more difficult than it looks because of a nearly imperceptible right-to-left slope.

Once gained, however, there’s a splendid view of the green below, whereas from the left side not only is the shot more difficult by orders of magnitude, but also the view is not quite so ideal. Not only that, but a miss to the right of the fairway is hardly even punished—there’s an argument that the truly ideal spot is to the right of the fairway, in an opening between two groves of trees—whereas anything much to the left of the fairway will likely require a punch-out and a near-certain bogey at best. So: a blind uphill tee shot into the unknown that rewards a fade, followed by a short-iron approach shot that calls for a bounding, bouncing draw that, nevertheless, doesn’t go long. That, I’d say, is a hole any golf course would love to have—and miles different from the hole it replaced.

The third hole is, more or less, the old fourth hole, only with a better green complex and, again, slightly more discipline with the placement of fairway bunkers. But the fourth … well, it may be the best hole on the golf course, although it’s ranked third-hardest on the scorecard. The quality doesn’t come from being hard alone however, though that’s certainly part of the appeal. First of all, it’s probably as hard as any hole on Course Three, the youngest of Medinah’s three courses but the site of all those major tournaments and the Ryder Cup. In part, that’s because the fourth’s as long as the big par fours that make Course Three’s reputation: this hole is nearly 500 yards from the back tees. And like them, you’d better bring the long ball to start.

Unlike them, though—or at least, not as much—you’d also better be able to park that long ball like a Fiat in Manhattan: in tight spaces. To the left of the tee, and running all up the left side until about 150 yards from the green, there’s a creek—and above the creek there’s a slope just waiting to throw a drawn ball into said creek. On the right there’s a thick grove of trees—one of the few left on Course One. And even once you’ve gotten to the right side of the fairway, you’re still not out of it: a truly long hitter risks hitting the tee ball so far that it risks running through the fairway—and into the creek that has given up guarding the left side and decided to make a dash completely across the fairway. But let’s say you’ve done all that.

The next shot might be one of the most fun shots at any of Medinah’s three courses, and most courses in Chicago—or anywhere else—would be very happy to have it: a downhill shot from somewhere around 200 yards that will land left of the green then take a right turn off a mound and disappear for a moment before (ideally) reappearing on the green somewhere near the flag. It’s a shot that’s a lot like the fifteenth at Streamsong, say—the kind of shot that can turn a bunch of laughs with your friends into a round you talk about afterwards, and a good round into a career-maker. I’m not even going to discuss the green itself really: suffice it to say that any professional could install it in his backyard and never need anything else to practice any putt he’d see anywhere in the world for the rest of his career. So that’s the fourth.

The fifth is a short par three with another amazing green; the sixth, a wide open tee shot (finally!) and a devilish second shot into a truly amazing green. The members, I’d find later, complain about this green the most I’d say, though to anyone who’s played Streamsong it wouldn’t seem that bad: there’s a massive mound at the front, which creates quite a false front. (The effect is somewhat like the fifth green at Augusta.) Still, though the members may not choose to remember it, the green on the hole it replaced was itself pretty tricky. But after that we’re on to the holes that Mr. Doak himself has said were the best holes on the old Course One: like the punchline of the children’s joke, seven eight nine.

Mr. Doak hasn’t done really much to these holes, other than, as on hole one, tightening them up where before the lines weren’t quite as defined, say, and—though to an extent that really makes them new holes—building entirely new greens in the old locations. The green at the par three seventh is amazing, turning a hole that had been all about, and nearly only about, the tee shot into an adventure both through the bunkering (the old sand, which had been the typical riverine kind of sand so common in Chicago, has been replaced by the same kind of uniform stuff that Course Three has had for years now) and the roller coaster swoop of the green itself. The green at the eighth, which was always a very tough par four, now rewards a running approach much better—and the ninth, which anyone who has ever played Course One will remember, still might be the hardest hole at Medinah on any of the courses: over six hundred yards long where placing the second shot more or less determines how anyone scores. (I’m treating these three holes in just a paragraph, but only because they were so great to begin with; if you’ve been you know, and the object here is really to talk about what Mr. Doak has done.)

Anyway, that brings up the tenth: now a short par four instead of the really short par five it had been. In a way it’s kind of a letdown: other than the lake on the right side that extends past the flag, it isn’t particularly noticeable other than (again) a perceptibly improved green. The eleventh: again, just tighter—not in a physical sense exactly; rather, what I mean is like the difference between hanging out on a beach for a month and then returning to town and getting a really good haircut. You feel sharper. Plus, on the eleventh you can hit your tee shot—and then go get a hot dog and a Brainerd (the local cocktail of choice, named in honor of a member; it’s a kind of hepped-up Sea Breeze) on your way to your ball. That, I’d say, simply defines a truly classy joint.

The twelfth, which used to be either the hardest or second-hardest hole on the golf course (depending on how you felt about the par five ninth), now has the sort of mounding around the green that would be familiar to anyone familiar with a Seth Raynor punchbowl, like the twelfth at Chicago Golf Club. (Hadn’t realized that they fell at the same place in their respective routings—a possible subterranean homage?) The thirteenth, which had always been something of an orphan on the old layout, is still a short par four, but with (again) some smart mounding around the green to guard against the long ball, though it’s still probably better to just bomb it up the right side and take your chances on your lie in the rough. (The old hole used to have, prior to the 2006 PGA Championship, a small pond in this area to guard against that tactic; I think the new hole would probably benefit from something similar now.) Again, like a lot of the greens, the thirteenth is pretty wild—though still not as crazy as some of the ones on Streamsong Blue.

On the old version of Course One, the fourteenth and the fifteenth were really just stupid holes—if you were caddying on Course One you just wanted them over and done. The new fourteenth is not really spectacular, but it’s a solid hole: a simple straightaway par four, like its predecessor, but now with considerably more room to miss to the right after a great many trees were removed. That’s very much better: the left side is entirely out of bounds. Over time, in fact, it seems possible to me to imagine that this hole may develop into a dogleg left.

The new fifteenth is now a par three, similar to the thirteenth at Chicago Golf Club: an uphill tee shot to an elevated green that falls away on all sides—and especially punishes anyone going long. The green is one of the smallest on the golf course, which is all to the good despite the fact that I can easily imagine backups developing here, especially during tournaments or outings: you can get a beer while you’re waiting for your turn to hit on the tee, which is always faintly scandalous and hence fun.

The sixteenth: the only tee shot that requires a carry on the whole course, though to an extra-wide fairway. Huge bunkers are scattered around, dwarfing the players. Somewhere around here the scale changes; even the ninth, a colossal hole, never really expresses its size—it’s more like a series of rooms than an amphitheater. Yet what had been an intimate golf course, especially by comparison with Course Three, here on sixteen begins to approach, and maybe even surpass, the younger brother. In his note to me, Mr. Doak mentioned how “the big clearing work opened up long views across the course”—this is nowhere more evident than on the sixteenth green, from which the clubhouse, nearly a thousand yards away, is clearly visible.

One last, even bigger, hole remains before the closing par three at the eighteenth: the par five seventeenth. Chasing towards the clubhouse half a mile away, the tee shot drives straightaway to the right of the same lake that lies to the right of the tenth fairway. (Take a minute. You’ll digest it.) It’s also here that we had our first real hiccup of the day (there’d been minor squabbles earlier, but nothing had really gone terribly wrong.) My player—the plus handicap player I’d mentioned above, maybe the best player at Medinah—thought he could carry his ball over, and to the left, of the lake; my thought was, even if he could, he still wouldn’t be able to reach the green. As it happens, we were both right: he could carry the lake; he couldn’t reach the green on his next. (This was debatable to him, but, you know—golfers.)

Anyway, the new green on the seventeenth is a bit reminiscent of the eighteenth at Olympia Fields North (at least on the members routing), or maybe the Railroad hole at Beverly—anybody who knows those courses knows that’s pretty high praise, and also gets an idea of what that means: big par five greens with a severe slope front to back. Mr. Doak also had the cunning to leave what had always been a really troublesome shot alone: the one from the front right bunker, which in the old days always had the risk of getting caught in the trees that stood next to the green. That risk is still there, which I suppose to the USGA or somebody would be considered a kind of bs—which it unapologetically is. But hey guy—you want a marshmallow, go play the muni down the road. The great ones all have some kind of weird voodoo crazy; this is Course One’s.

“We may our ends by our beginnings know,” wrote John Denham, some two years after the Great Fire in 1666 whose recollection, when Chicago burned in 1871, caused Londoners to take up a collection that became the foundation of the Chicago Public Library. The eighteenth on Course One ends just next to the first tee, as it has since 1926—just more than fifty years since the Fire. That’s odd to think about: the Fire was then within living memory, and closer in time than World War II is for us today. For nearly twice that time, people have been hitting shots from more or less the same places to more or less the same places at Medinah: the new Course One ends where it always has, near where it has always begun. In many ways the twenty-first century appears to rhyme, if not outright repeat, the plot of its predecessor, in a way not dissimilar to the way in which the new Star Wars movie rhymes with the old. Though there is one difference between the old Star Wars movie and the new one, as Arthur Chu perceptively pointed out recently in Salon: in the earlier movies, “the war was between evil old men and young rebels,” whereas, in “the new Star Wars, the bad guys are young.” Chu’s point is that a great deal of how we think about the present is dictated by reference to a narrative in which the old bad guys “would inevitably die out”; what The Force Awakens signals is an end to that kind of thinking, and not merely as the Baby Boomers exit the stage of world history. It’s a perspective that suggests, contrary to the way many people think these days, there simply are better and worse answers, and so history is an illusion. In that sense, by stripping out the trees that had obscured the long views of Course One, Tom Doak may have restored more than a golf course.